Friday, February 26, 2010

Staying Grey..

One of the key skills needed to live in Zimbabwe these days, is the ability to stay grey, ie to conduct one’s life in an entirely unremarkable manner, so as to not attract attention by politicians.

Don’t misunderstand me, we are not trying to dodge the law. The law in Zimbabwe – such as it is- is not upheld when it comes to all things political in any case. No. We go to great lengths to pay our taxes (see my post on Taxing Matters). We have car tax discs, licenses for our dogs, TVs, radios, bicycles (!) and comply with all manner of other legal requirements. We even pay our utility bills for things we haven’t actually received for years. Municipal water? Oh yes, I think we did manage to fill a bucket from the mains, back in 2002…

Staying grey here means not being seen to engage in anything political or related to media or communication activities – this is especially sensible given that yours truly holds a passport from a Politically Undesirable Nation. Hence the anonymity of this blog.

The delicious irony is that in many countries it is the other way around, politicians try to live in an unremarkable manner so as not to get caught by the general public, or worse, a tabloid journalist or paparazzi photographer, while engaging in illegal, immoral or generally scandalous activities.

In Zimbabwe politicians can do those as publically as they like, although some of the more lewd activities are discouraged (but not corruption, murder, extortion, looting of course – what’s the point of being a politician if you don’t follow your leaders?).

But a member of Joe Public voicing concern or dismay about anything vaguely political – from implying that people might be adversely affected by a drought for instance, or wondering if the Unity Government might be permitted to actually function, or the like – now that’s asking for a spell in the prison or a mysterious fatal traffic accident. If you are foreign, and lucky, you could just get away with a bit of torture, death threats to you and your family and being thrown out of the country.

All sorts of ingenious strategies for quiet communication and information sharing have been employed in the general effort to stay grey. People regularly look over their shoulder and lower their voice before discussing anything political, even at home.

There are euphemisms for all manner of things. In the old days – and I’m only talking about last year – an innocent SMS invitation to “Please come for hotdogs” would have been a coded message for “I’d like to buy some US dollars”. Similarly there were huge orders placed for paper products (cash), when there was a national shortage of the stuff.

The best covert communication strategy (now no longer practiced as it was discovered) was that people would send each other emails in HTML format about everyday boring topics, adding a secret message in white font. To decipher it, the receiver would merely change the font colour to black, and a seemingly ordinary short email would suddenly have all sorts of useful intel. Simple but effective.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Mr President

Reports this week that the usual lavish birthday extravaganza is being arranged for President Robert Mugabe’s 86th birthday come as no great shock. Every year the President’s birthday is marked with an embarrassingly unashamed outpouring of pomp and circumstance accompanied by sycophantic fawning among the political elite, paid for by siphoned public funds and coerced contributions from the private sector.

The 21st February youth movement was established in the mid 1980s to mark the occasion. Members are groomed to follow their parents' rise in the president’s hardline political party, ZANU PF. The (government-controlled) media publishes special supplements depicting Mugabe as a national hero and lavishing praise on all his deeds, notably repelling the British colonials and all their perceived allies and friends - Americans, Ozzies, etc.

The “Old Man” appears fit and healthy, and he clearly has no intention of relaxing his iron fist. Rumour has it that he meets all new ambassadors and dignitaries on the steps of State House, which he runs up, two at a time, to demonstrate his prowess. The diplomatic corps also reportedly refer to him as "Botox Bob" because he has a youthful countenance which occasionally collapses if he’s left it too long between injections.

Clearly he is a lot healthier than his country, thanks to the disastrous land reform programme, and the continued raping of the economy by Bob and his cronies. The economy is in tatters, and recovery is seriously threatened by the indigenisation bill which Mugabe unilaterally gazetted last week, requiring a minimum of 51% of all businesses operating in the country to be handed over to indigenous Zimbabweans. Life expectancy at birth for males was 60 in 1990, and has now declined dramatically to 37, the lowest life expectancy in the world. It’s worse for women: their life expectancy at birth of only 34 years. Over 90% of the population is unemployed, millions have fled the country, teachers and civil servants are striking over their paltry wages and over two million people are starving.

Official birthday celebrations are being ramped up this year to include an all night gala featuring local and international artists. The location for this extravaganza is Bulawayo, ironic as it is the city nearest where the Gukurahundi killings took place in the 1980s, during which roughly 3000 people were killed or disappeared at the hands of the fearsome 5th Brigade, under the command of the Old Man himself.

It may be the twilight of his political career, but from where I sit, it still seems that cunning old Bob, and his cohorts, have a firm grip of all the aces. Yes some things have improved for some people in Zimbabwe, but for the majority, the future still looks bleak.

I’m not the only one in Harare tonight who feels desperate, angry, depressed, sad – and emotionally wrought out. Like a thin wire stretched to breaking point.

We’ve been through a lot in the last ten years, how much more suffering can this country endure?